We wandered the temples for hours, completely absorbed in the beauty and tranquility of both nature and history. We climbed through and on the buildings, there is nowhere like this on earth. It was both supremely relaxing, and awe inspiring too. I felt if I could live there, I would never need to see anything more. For this was perfection in the random imperfection of this great chimera.
It occurred to me that this is what would happen to the world if man ceased to exist, how nature would slowly absorb the buildings, eventually crumbling them back into the earth. To see a modern city a hundred years into this process, with the high rises and skyscrapers filled with plants and birds as the world recovered from a dystopian breakdown. Yes, that would be something to see. But that was exactly what this was once, the height of civilisation, now reclaimed by the jungle. The Khmer empire now nothing more than ghosts of the past.
There were restoration projects happening all around the sites, one by one the building reassembled in their (as close to as possible) original form. Buildings like the Bayon, the most wonderful of all the temples. A series of four female faced heads, sitting symmetrically on one of the larger temple complexes, chambers inside, but a maze of walkways traversing the outside of the building. Nowhere in the temple was designed to be unscalable, untouched.
It is here we headed evenings, to find a quiet spot to bask in the setting sun and smoke a joint, sitting back as the colour of the sun became almost surreal in its perfection bringing the temple itself to life, flooding the ancient walkways with the ambiance of time. I admired the stone, covered in mosses and algae, a patchwork of green, black and red tones. The detail of the carvings, the symmetry of the roof top construction, so many pieces fitting perfectly together, you felt a pride at the achievement of man, his vision, his creativity. This had all been constructed so long and here I was hundreds of years later, mesmerised by the light, absorbed in a moment of unbridled beauty, in the perfection of life. This was a close to a spiritual perfection as I have ever experienced. Connected to history yet alive in the present. Perhaps these ghosts of the past sat with us watching the sun. These are the moments we live for.
Walking along the initial approach to the Wat you are faced with the first buildings of the compound, long and stretching along the first wall of Wat, carved and exquisite. Entering the great gateway, you look to either side to see a series of great stone chambers and walkways that extend to doors that open out into the bright sun. The path reaches straight up at the Wat itself, stretching both outwards and towards heaven with a series of peaks and towers. The architecture is as nothing I have seen before yet holds a little of every great temple I have visited. Angkor Wat is without a doubt one of the most impressive buildings in the world. The perimeter wall stretched maybe half a kilometre in each direction. Inside the huge raised walkway approaching the Wat with the land around it cleared of jungle and the Wat rising pretty much as it must have in its time of occupation, when it was the centre of a kingdom. You have to pause to image how that would have been. A series of towers rising up symmetrically from the huge stone walls that contain a series of criss-crossing rooms and walkways. The building rises within itself in three stages, to a central point where you can look out at the jungle around. It’s awesome in size and so filled with incredible detail.
The walls inside are covered in carvings and friezes, bare breasted girls that give the ancient temple a feeling of jollity that perhaps you would not expect in such a great religious place. Like the cut-out pictures of page 3 girls blue tacked on a workshop wall. It is a great pillared building with walkways constantly changing to give altered perspectives of the great building. The towers rising from each corner of the rising levels are topped with tapered domes that are typical of the Khmer style of architecture. It’s a magnificent place yet too sterile in its reconstruction and the wonder of the overgrown temples is missing here. Angkor Wat is very beautiful, but has long since been cleaned up, unlike some of the temples, still overgrown with jungle and the huge dinosaur limbs roots supporting the stonework. The ambiance of the main Wat is different because of that.
Inside you can make a prayer to Buddha at a price, irony considering Buddha’s teachings on that subject. Buddha believed that man should not benefit financially from religion, yet you cannot get within half a mile of a Buddhist temple or shrine without somebody trying to sell you a religious icon, and when I say religious, I have experienced the like of Buddha snow storms in my time. I’m sure Buddha wouldn’t really mind. He was pretty chilled.
In fact, the whole time you are in there you are approached with attempts to part you from your money which again is not unusual in developing countries. Little did they know I was travelling on borrowed dollars myself at this point. I had overstayed my time, having been on the road for almost ten months and needing to work now. But to those from developing countries you must have money, and of course on a level you do. Let’s not forget that most of us in the west live in the top 2% of wealth of the world, although it is relative. That grubby little kid asking you for money to take a photo does not have a credit card, no back up, they don’t earn, they don’t eat.
They try to sell you Post-cards, flutes, harps, scarves, cold drinks, toys, in fact just about anything they can find. And of course, you buy some, you have to, but you can’t buy them all. Other young boys follow you along, offering to be guides, but there is such a group of them you have ask them to leave, as you can’t do anything with all the milling bodies around you. Sometimes they understand, other times they just follow behind, their little voices supported by a chorus of the tiny instruments they are trying to sell to you. I have experienced this across Asia, sometimes you have to wonder where the morals of the societies are, when an 8-year-old tries to sell you Opium, but we the western traveller have created this, it is just survival. Supply and demand.
We left the temple in the late afternoon, we looked back to see the sun hit the cloud just above the horizon and the sky went from yellow and gold to pink and purple. The perfect back drop as we sped home on the back of mopeds from our day in the temples. Angkor Wat silhouetted by the setting sun.
If you want to read more about this trip or just look at some photos, please click this link.